Unitil's inability to respond to massive power outages in MA and NH during the December 2008 ice storm brought simmering customer unrest to the boiling point. Rate increases and unregulated charges that had for years been publicized as necessary to invest in infrastructure upgrades and maintenance turned out instead to have gone into salaries, benefits and bonuses. Aged, obsolete equipment, poles and lines disintegrated when stressed, furthering delaying restoration of power. 100% of MA customers and 40% of NH customers were without power for up to twelve days. Town officials in Hampton, NH, Townsend, MA and elsewhere have begun the process of exploring municipalization, and in other communities consumer-voters are organizing to find alternatives to Unitil's monopoly of their electric and natural gas delivery. Massachusetts state officials have called for a legislative inquiry and sanctions, and the departments of public utilities in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire have begun investigating Unitil's poor response to the ice storm emergency. Adding insult to injury, Unitil was unable to read many electric meters by computer because there was no power to transmit the data to the Unitil computers, and Unitil issued estimated bills to a large percentage of their customers. Consumers are complaining that despite the fact that they used zero electricity for the better part of two weeks in December 2008, the estimated bills were up to three hundred percent in excess of their December 2007 bill. One nursing home in Fitchburg, MA reported that although their normal winter electric bill was $600, they received an estimated bill of $3,000. Some consumers have questioned whether estimates were deliberately overinflated in order to show a higher accounts receivable for the month of December than would be expected after having many customers offline for up to half the month.
Some consumers allege that a thorough investigation of Unitil's business practices will bring to light practices similar to those of Enron or TYCO, and have asked that the SEC or other Federal officials look into the practices of this utility holding company which operates in three New England states. Regardless of the outcome of any of the ongoing or proposed investigations, there is great fervor in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for revisiting municipalization, and legislation afoot in MA to ease the way. This is not good news for an Investor Owned Utility such as Unitil.